Padre Pio’s body leaves the Vatican after drawing thousands of pilgrims

VATICAN CITY (RNS) The body of one of Italy’s favorite saints spent nearly a week on display inside St. Peter’s Basilica as part of the Jubilee of Mercy.

Faithful pray in front of the crystal coffins containing the exhumed bodies of the mystic saint Padre Pio displayed in Saint Peter's Basilica during a Jubilee day for the mystic saint Padre Pio at the Vatican on February 6, 2016. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/Pool *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-PADRE-PIO, originally transmitted on Feb. 11, 2016.

The faithful pray in front of the crystal coffin containing the body of the mystic and saint, Padre Pio. His remains were on display in St. Peter’s Basilica in February 2016 for the Jubilee of Mercy. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/Pool *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-PIO-BODY, originally transmitted on Feb. 11, 2016.

VATICAN CITY (RNS) The body of one of Italy’s favorite saints, Padre Pio, has left the Vatican, carried out in a distinctive crystal coffin after nearly a week on display inside St. Peter’s Basilica as part of the Jubilee of Mercy.

A priest of the Capuchin order, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina was celebrated for his commitment to the confessional and for displaying signs of “stigmata,” the wounds in his hands, feet and side that Jesus is said to have suffered at his crucifixion.

Padre Pio’s remains brought thousands of pilgrims to Rome to venerate the saint.

The departure of his body from the Vatican on Thursday (Feb. 11) came eight days after it was brought to Rome from San Giovanni Rotondo, the southern Italian town where Padre Pio spent most of his life.

The saint’s remains will return to San Giovanni Rotondo on February 14 after going on display for three days in his home town of Pietrelcina.

Padre Pio died in 1968 and was declared a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002, six years before his body was exhumed and put on display.

A silicone mask was placed over his face to conceal the decay, and his body was dressed in the brown robes of his Capuchin order. His popularity has endured despite allegations that he faked the stigmata that made him well-known in the Catholic world and revered by many.

The saint’s body was brought to Rome on Feb. 3 at the request of Pope Francis, along with the remains of St. Leopoldo Mandic, a less well-known Capuchin friar who was born in Croatia but spent most of his life in Padua in northern Italy.

“Such an occasion is of great significance for it is an unprecedented event, given the stories of these two saints who spent their lives in the service of the mercy of God,” said Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, ahead of the saints’ arrival.

Resting first in the Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, the two saints’ remains were then moved to Rome’s St. Salvatore at the Laurels church, where a lengthy line of pilgrims gathered to watch the procession to the Vatican.

Last Saturday, Francis met with “Padre Pio prayer groups.” Representatives of the worldwide Capuchin community were also in Rome and celebrated Mass with the pontiff, who in his remarks reinforced the importance of confessors.

“One who comes (to the confessional), comes seeking comfort, pardon, peace in his soul; let him find a father who embraces him and says, ‘God loves you,’ and makes the penitent feel that God really does,” the pope told the friars on Tuesday.

Francis continued with that theme a day later, on Ash Wednesday, in formally giving a mandate to more than 1,000 priests he had designated as “Missionaries of Mercy” for the jubilee.

The priests have been tasked with preaching mercy and hearing confessions, with special authority to absolve sins in cases that are usually decided by the Vatican.

(Rosie Scammell covers the Vatican for RNS)